Breast milk might one day serve as a screening tool to assess breast cancer risk.
A new study examined DNA from specific cells present in breast milk that could provide clues to a woman’s risk for developing breast cancer.
Researchers found there were more DNA modifications on certain genes inside these cells in breast tissue that turned cancerous compared to healthy tissue.
The test would be particularly useful for women who become pregnant later in life because they are at a higher risk for breast cancer, said study researcher Kathleen Arcaro, an associate professor of veterinary and animal sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
There are currently no good methods for screening pregnant women for breast cancer, Arcaro said. Mammograms do not detect breast cancer well in lactating women.
Arcaro and her colleagues collected breast milk from about 250 women who had had a breast biopsy to check for potential problems. The women provided milk samples from both their biopsied and non-biopsied breasts. Breast milk has advantages over some previous methods for studying breast cancer risk: it allows researchers to collect cells from inside patients’ breasts in a manner that is noninvasive and provides a large number of cells, Arcaro said. Some of these women turned out to have cancer, while others did not.
The researchers are continuing to follow the participants to see if any additional cancer cases develop.
They would also like to examine more genes, Arcaro said. A screening test would need to examine DNA modifications on a number of genes in order to accurately predict a women’s breast cancer risk.
The study focused on a relatively small group of women and needs to be replicated in a larger group of women. But if it holds true, about 80 percent of women give birth and could take such a test.